Merit. Huh?

Warning: this is a post about theology. If you were looking for knitting content, you might be very bored. But if it’s compelling enough for me to bother writing a blog post about it, it might actually be generally interesting, since I would usually much rather post about knitting. But then again, maybe I’m just that desperate to avoid reading more Wesley and Edwards right now.

I have been wonderingly lately about the concept of merit. The concept has changed a lot over the years, but the idea that remains seems so unpleasant to me that whenever it comes up in conversation, I wrinkle my nose and say “why would you want to think that?” It keeps coming up in a sort of nebulous way in conversation with all different sorts of Christians, so I’d like to pin it down.

I didn’t really want to work it out for myself, so instead I asked it of Bill Witt, a prof at Trinity, on Facebook:

“the question goes something like: “Merit. Why the heck?” It seems like the whole Christian world at some point thought that getting saved was all about brownie points in heaven, and Catholics were like “Jesus made it so you can get brownie points too, and borrow them from saints!” and Protestants were all like “forget that; just pray and Jesus gives you infinite brownie points!” It seems like we mostly got over that, but every now and then it is mentioned in passing and I have to hold myself back from saying “why on earth do you want to think about justification that way?” I also have no idea what the current status of the doctrine is. Catholics I talk to seem to still think merit matters, and if so, why and how? And there seems to be a particular flavor of substitutionary atonement that still says we get saved by the infusion of infinite Jesus brownie points; am I supposed to believe that?”

Bill is usually very tolerant of this sort of nonsense, but the poor chap informed me in church today that I was asking him to write a book that he had no time for right now. (Apparently, professors actually do things in the summer. Things other than sit about reading and writing books to amuse their students.) He even hinted that I should figure it out for myself in the context of a thesis, a thought so abhorrent to me that I decided to put out a little more effort to get an answer.

Here’s what I mean by brownie points: the only definition of “merit” that I see in active use today by normal people is the definition implied in a phrase like “treasury of merit,” or “merit badge.” You earn it, it’s external to yourself, and it’s based on some kind of quantitative value system like money or points. I understand that this is not always what “merit” meant, that it used to mean something actually cool, but this is what I think the actual semantic range of “merit” is right now.

I am guessing that this concept of merit showed up sometime in the 1300-1500s, probably because of nominalism. (I spent a good part of this semester trying to figure out nominalism, and my conclusion is more or less that Nominalism Ruined Everything.) Merit = brownie points. Around the time of the Reformation, it seems like everyone agreed that these merit brownie points is what makes the atonement work. The disagreement was over where they came from: Catholics seemed to say you could earn them, and/or pray to get them a little at a time (though it was only because of grace that you could earn them); Protestants said that Jesus gave you all the brownie points you ever needed because he has an infinite “treasury” of them. I’m a little unclear on how Jesus is supposed to have gotten this merit – some seem to say it was because he perfectly obeyed the law, others because he is also God and thus has infinite supplies of all sorts of things. But no matter how you break it down, it looks to me like a ledger sheet.

Both of these views seem to me to be saying something a little different than what I understand of the substitutionary atonement. I should have died, and Jesus died in my place, receiving the punishment I should have received, by his death and resurrection destroying death and my bondage to sin and offering new life. So even though it does have to do with Jesus’ actions, it’s less like pouring good deeds from one bucket into another, and more like turning the whole messed-up world upside down to fix it.

So please forgive me – I admit I am mostly ignorant and not trying to sound like a jerk – but when I hear the above mentioned “merit” based atonement stories, I just do not understand why you would choose to believe that. I’m like, forget it! Merit sucks!

But, I frankly do not know much about what merit used to mean before nominalism screwed it up. From the 60 seconds of explanation Bill had time to give me, though, I got a good hint. If it has to do with ethics and virtue, it probably has to do way more with something inside of you than something outside of you. Less to do with racking up brownie points, and more to do with becoming the sort of person who would not just explode in God’s presence. If what “merit” really means has more to do with being able to walk on the grass in heaven, I could buy that. (If you  haven’t read The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis, take two hours of your life and go do it. It is super-short and will make you a better person. This is true.)

As I read a metric ton of stuff by Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley, it seems like they might have believed in this kind of merit. They were both incredibly obsessed with holiness, really serious about virtue, and willing to be as systematic as possible to expunge sin from their lives and get closer and closer to God. This sounds to me a little like a mental illness, but when I read how much they enjoyed God’s presence, how much they looked forward to being with God in heaven, I see that they were on to something. Something worth devoting your life to.

The question that remains with this approach, a question I’m a little afraid to touch, is how much this cooler kind of merit has to do with the atonement. I still very much think in black and white saved/not saved terms, though in reality I can accept that the truth is more nuanced. I think it is possible to lose your salvation, to shipwreck your faith, to jump out of your baptism, etc. BUT I think it’s hard, and I don’t think it’s something we have to worry about. Edwards and Wesley seemed, at least early on in life (but when they were much older than me), to worry about it. Maybe that’s because enough of my brain still thinks “I’m saved, I’m good,” but I also believed Augustine when he said you can’t know absolutely for sure whether you’re saved, but you should live as though you did. I certainly don’t believe in the internal assurance stuff that Wesley and the Moravians were so into. In the end, I still tend to think that if you believe and declare that Jesus is Lord and God and that he died and was raised from the dead for your sin, you are “in,” but the grass might hurt your feet for a long time. (Haha. Maybe that means I accidentally believe in Purgatory.)

So maybe I am still asking Bill to write a book. I still want to hear his answer (if we are very lucky, maybe he will blog about it) but in the meantime, maybe it can be a discussion. (Keep things nice. I have lots of pointy sticks that I know how to use if you start acting up on my blog.)

Here are my questions:

(a) This question anyone can answer (I’d love to hear some diversity on this one): What do people say now about merit? As regards to what it is (brownie points or no), where it comes from (Jesus or elsewhere), and what its relationship is to salvation (justifying or sanctifying or some blend)? Usually things divide into a more Catholic side and a more Protestant side, though the line doesn’t fall exactly where the denominational boundaries fall. Though this time there might be a third position, some kind of neo-Calvinist-pseudo-Lutheran thing.

(b) This is for theologians (maybe just Bill): What is the cool version of merit that existed before nominalism messed it up? Same breakdown as previous.

(c) This is for people who agree with me only (If you think all merit is cool and brownie points are great, please do not be offended, but this is the question I am going to ask): If the word “merit” is as compromised as I think it is, how can the cool concept be reappropriated? Is it worth trying to redeem the word merit, or would it better to use another word, like sanctification?

5 thoughts on “Merit. Huh?

  1. Maybe I’m just way too simple, but I believe that my goodness is like filthy rags and there is nothing I can do to earn salvation (Jesus + 0 = perfect propitiation). Salvation is a free gift from God and precludes us humans from boasting of any good deed or quality (they all come from God anyway). His grace offers the gift, and we can choose (or not) to accept it. Even our faith to accept it is ultimately a gift from Him. Christ’s suffering and death on the cross was sufficient to satisfy a just God’s requirement that sin be punished because Christ Jesus is God – inherently and uniquely meritorious among men. Each of us humans must be punished individually for our own sin unless/until we believe in our hearts and confess with or mouths that Jesus is Savior and Lord and that our sins have been forgiven. Nothing any human can do or be can overcome that requirement. As Forrest Gump said, that’s what I have to say about that. Sounds like a thseis topic to me – but, then again, I am not facing a thesis requirement. <


  2. What about Jesus proclamation “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”? I take this to mean that the kingdom of heaven is very much in the now, so live as though it is – you know, with kindness, goodness, charity, peace, etc, etc. I don’t even consider the merit/brownie points and all. I just focus on the kingdom and my part in bringing it here and now.


  3. I am Eastern Orthodox and people commonly forget about us but we started out as the one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Then there was the schism for various reasons, one being an argument over the papacy, the filioque, and things like this merit stuff. So we all branched off and this “merit” is a Catholic thing that was later adopted after the schism which divided us into two churches.. I’m not a scholar so I can’t name dates or people or anything like that. I even understand that the merit thing (say so many hail marys to get out of purgatory) isn’t as commonly used in Catholicism anymore.

    Personally I don’t think there is any cool version of merit. It isn’t mentioned in scripture and it seems like something that was made up along the way…same thing with salvation being a done deal. I think we work on our salvation daily through continual repentance, that we can fall, ruin our baptism, etc. but true repentance of our wrongs is the key, not earning points or keeping track of some kind of merit.


  4. I agree with Janet and Amy! I’ve been reading your site — beautiful, expressive writing and thoughtful, lovely knitted things! I can see we have a lot in common, even if some of our theology doesn’t quite line up….


  5. I don’t know how I missed all these cool comments. Thanks, everyone, for sharing your thoughts. It turns out this is a good question – I put it to my favorite theology prof, and he’s still puzzling over how to answer me without writing a book! I think right now I probably line up most closely with what Amy said. But I would genuinely like to understand the theology of merit in my own tradition, and whether it leads to error inevitably, or only in our present culture, or whether it needs correcting.


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