Call me a heretic, but I'm sort of with the Catholics on this. I believe in merit. I think God is happier with some Christians than with others.
(The corollary here is that I also reject the notion that "all sins are equal" in the sight of God. I think that's crazy talk. There's a difference between stealing paper from work and, say, rape, child sexual abuse or genocide.)
Some of my feelings in this regard have to do with how I was raised in my faith tradition. We preached that a person could fall from grace and that "faith without works is dead." To be sure this led to a lot of toxic outcomes, breeding in my people a paranoia about being sent to hell if they weren't good enough. So I'm not apologizing for the theology, just telling you how my religious imagination has been formed. I have a sort of "put up or shut up" attitude when it comes to Christianity.
But the other thing to consider here is the biblical witness regarding merit. For example:
1 Corinthians 3.10-15Grace and merit are both on display in this passage. We see grace in the fact that the foundation is Christ. And if that foundation is in place the person is saved, even if they build with "wood, hay or straw." Even though these people live less than commendable lives they will be saved, but "only as one escaping through the flames."
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
But merit is also on display in that those who build with gold, silver, and costly stones will "receive a reward." Those who don't will experience salvation but also a "loss." There is a test coming, a test that will examine the "quality of each person's work." And some of this work will last and some won't.
The point being, what we do matters. Eternally. I believe in grace. But I also believe that many spiteful and hateful Christians are building with straw. These individuals will be saved, but they will also suffer loss. In hell I think. They will escape through the fire.
But others are building with gold and silver. Christians visiting the sick. Clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. Is this merit? I don't know. But these seem to be works which will survive and last for all eternity.