Paul's Doctrine of Merit

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):
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.
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:
Galatians 6.7-10
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
"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.

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25 thoughts on “Paul's Doctrine of Merit”

  1. This seems to me a doctrine of consequence. Merit implies conditions for justification. This passage and others like it provide instruction on the nature of life, describing the outcomes of behavior. Too often we interpret passages of guidance as conditions for acceptance. That may be missing what you intended, but it concerns me when the term merit is applied.

  2. So are we justified by merit? Reaping what we sow sounds a lot like karma to me? Do good, get good. Do bad, get bad. I'm not disagreeing with you, just a bit confused. At my current state of understanding I assume that we are punished by our sin and not for our sin. In turn, I guess we could say that we are rewarded by doing good, but grace is not withheld if we fail to do good.

  3. The Lutheran Tradition with the law and gospel dialectic has been forced to deal with that for a long time.  The Sola Fide by itself has always been a collapsing or an unjustified resolution of law and gospel.   In my experience it ties into Dr. Beck's concerns about the transcendent and the immanent.  Our righteousness (merit) with God is passive, received through faith alone by the work of Christ alone.  If I try and bring my immanent works into that discussion with God, I'm just self-justifying which is killing myself in that transcendent dimension.  But we do have an active righteousness.  The love that justified us transcendent-ly through faith spills out into the immanent.  What does that look like?  A living of the revealed law, which is a living at peace with our neighbor at the minimalist.  The deeper positive force of the law is that we help our neighbor where no help could naturally be expected.  Not just don't slander the neighbor, but actively speak well of him and put the best construction on things.  There is an active righteousness there received only after gospel.  Of course in this world most of that positive force of the law is either denied or rendered naive.  Hence don't expect the reward for righteousness here and now.  At the proper time we will reap.

    Dividing law and gospel without separating them or denying either is an important skill. 

  4. I don't know anything about karma so I can't make a comparison. But to be clear, Paul's theology of grace and justification doesn't reduce to "a person reaps what they sow." All I'm saying is that, generally speaking, Protestant theologies of grace and justification have failed to do a good job incorporating these texts from Paul (to say nothing of Jesus and James).

    As for how grace and merit work together, the Catholic tradition has been talking about that for a very long time. I'd start your investigations there.

  5. These are the kinds of texts that didn't seem to "fit" for me as an evangelical, which eventually drew me to the theology of NT Wright (especially his emphasis on the "judgment according to works").

  6. Yeah, it really isn't close. The NT throughout teaches of the importance of virtuous behavior. The classic protestant obsession with grace over works has been a huge interpretive obstacle for most Christians.

    Even Paul's most famous bit of poetry, 1 Corinthians 13, is a meditation on how piety is worthless without charitable behavior to uphold it. Love is not an emotion it is a way of behaving compassionately toward others. You can have believe everything right and not love your neighbor and you've got less than nothing.

  7. To be honest, I don't know how to make all the biblical material fit together in this regard. But what seems very clear to me is this: What you do matters. How you treat people matters. I'm not sure how it matters. But it matters. Big time.

  8. I think of it like this: what we do matters deeply because it has effects on ourselves, others, and the world around us.  At the same time, we are loved and valued regardless of what we do.  Salvation is about coming into the awareness that we are loved by God and that anything we may have done to make us doubt can be forgiven.  As we start to live out of this awareness and nurture it through spiritual disciplines, we naturally begin to act virtuously.  If we aren't beginning to change our behavior, there must be some disconnect between what we profess and what we actually believe in our heart.  I think most of the NT makes sense according to this understanding.

  9. I think that is exactly right. I think the experience of grace is what makes moral performance an adventure in joy. And when that backdrop of grace goes missing we are left with guilt, shame and fear.

    As always, everything goes back to one's view of God. Get that right and everything works well, theologically. Get that wrong and it's just a mess.

  10. I do know a little bit about karma from my Religious Study/Anthropology background's not much like what people in the West tend to think. Karma clings; it is attachment to this world. Yes, as a result of karma if you do good, good is done to you, and if you do bad, bad is done to you, but at least in the mystic traditions in Buddhism and Hinduism, 1) that is because we are all interconnected, so it's less cosmic reward and more obvious consequence (if you harm your neighbour, you are harming yourself) and 2) all karma binds one to illusion, and so all karma prevents one from escaping the suffering of the world.

    So, in a sense, even in karma we are punished /by/ our bad deeds, not for them. 

    Now, I have no idea what popular Hinduism or Buddhism says about this, and I had a Taiwanese friend who seemed to think that karma was mainly a punishment/reward system, so perhaps the stuff I learned in the classroom does not really map onto lay beliefs...

  11. I'm wondering--and I want to emphasize that I am thinking out loud--if the current popular Protestant stance on merit is a skewed version of an older, more important (in the sense that it founded Protestantism) insight that salvation was worked out between the believer (or worker) and God, without the RC Church in the middle determining what merited and what did not. Luther was railing (rightly, I'd say) against the selling of pardons for sins and against equating donations for cathedral beautification with religious works. So in that particular historical moment, Galatians could be taken as appropriate to the economic and political problems around having a single, catholic, property-owning church decide whether your works merited salvation.

    Of course, the Catholic Church did address this criticism toward the end of the Reformation and now is pretty much clean of it. So in an environment where there aren't politically-sanctioned economic abuses centered on the issue of merit, those former claims are out of place and come to mean something different.

  12. The problem is that loving your neighbor involves *loving.* Though I may give all I possess/ And striving so my love confess/
    Yet not be given by love within/ I am a theological zombie, and a broke one at that.

    Christianity and behaviorism don't mix, and I'm still sorting out how to love, instead of just not being an asshole.

  13. It's a great hymn, but it isn't what Paul actually says. The hymn emotionalizes love where Paul doesn't. At most you could say that Paul implies Love entails a kindly disposition toward the other, but clearly the weight of meaning is on charitable action. To me the emotional inflection of love in our discourse is a huge problem. It is what enables us to claim to be loving while behaving like jerks. It doesn't really matter what you feel on the inside. It's what you actually do that matters and determines whether you are loving.

  14. You really should read Gary Anderson's book, Sin: A History (Yale Univeristy Press, 2009). Part three, "Balancing Debts with Virtue" consists of these four chapters, "Redeem Your Sins with Alms," "Salvation by Works?" "A Treasure In Heaven," "Why God Became Man."

  15. ...good call on the hymn emotionalizing Paul. 1 Corinthians 13 is about action, and I focused on the internal side of praxis mostly because that was the problem I've struggled with the longest. (The flip side of cheap grace is activism: displays of good grace in the hopes that the motives ascribed to you will sink in. That was my life of faith until basically last year.)

    Would it be fair to say that our entire discourse of love is screwed up? Sorry about hymn-referencing again, but it strikes me that we've made amor a completely personal thing while completely depersonalizing caritas.

  16.  No apologies necessary. I love a good conversation.

    James Alison is fond of saying that we should perhaps move away from saying "God loves you" toward "God likes you" because we've become accustomed to thinking of God as simultaneously angry and judgmental of us and somehow still "loving" in that she doesn't destroy us. In the same way, I think it is fair, good even, to say that part of loving someone is learning to actually like them. To hold them in positive regard. But I would still regard this as an active thing. It is something we practice not just something we feel.

    Feelings often (usually) come upon us unbidden. It is why people say they "fall in love" and why they imagine they can also just "fall out of love". If love is a feeling it is indeed beyond a measure of our control. If love is a practice, though, then it is something Jesus can rightly command us to do: love your neighbor/enemy as yourself.

  17. How do you reconcile merit will your notion of "free will" (or weak volitionalism) ? If we start assessing merit don't we fall prey to the fundamental attribution error?

  18. "Love" (agape) is certainly made evident by action.  However, in the first verse of I Cor. 13 Paul makes it clear that action/activism alone is not the full measure of love and can actually be a substitute.

    Agape doesn't originate in our actions, rather our actions toward others are rooted in how God in Christ relates to us.  What Paul describes as love actions in that chapter are perfect descriptions of how God relates to us.  When we truly understand that, when metanoia (going beyond our old way ["dead"] of thinking) is doing its work, then our whole being will be altered by the influence of God in us and the Others we interact with in life will take on an entirely different visage.

    Perhaps the use of "charity" in the KJV is a more holistic word.


  19. Richard,

    I think the issue raised by your use of "merit" is, merit for/toward what?

    To paraphrase someone(s) else; Merit is is opposition to Grace, but Grace is never in opposition to effort.

    (I don't remember where that cam from...perhaps Dallas Willard?)


  20. Protestant theologies of grace and justification have failed to do a good job incorporating these texts from Paul (to say nothing of Jesus and James).

    I do agree with that, Richard.

    I would also add that even Catholic tradition has it's own problems in this area.

    Humans are totally addicted to merit, guilt, and eschatology (in short, "religion").  All systematic theologies fall short simply because no systematic theology is THE GOSPEL and because any attempt to systematize God Who Is Infinite is a failure by definition.

  21. It's a great line, wherever it's from. I wish I'd heard it earlier.

    (And it does sound like something Dallas Willard would say. I know I got my talk of cheap grace/activism from The Divine Conspiracy.)

  22. Is it of any significance that the idea of destruction comes from the flesh, versus from God? I think when many people imagine an idea of salvation by merit, they're thinking of God punishing/rewarding people based on actions. This verse seems to more imply natural consequences: live life according to "the flesh" (Gal. 5:16-21) and you'll suffer the results, live life according to "the Spirit" (Gal. 5:22-26) and you'll be part of the Kingdom of God.

    It's also interesting to note the sudden switch to plural between verses 8 and 9. "Let us not grow weary of doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up." Again, this doesn't quite fit into an idea of otherworldly, individual salvation. But then, I think a lot of passages in the Bible get interpreted as otherworldly, individual salvation when they really, really shouldn't be. We need to get over the idea that "salvation" is setting accounts right with God, versus living out the Kingdom and becoming a better my not-so-humble opinion anyway.

    I'm still mulling all of this myself, and I like reading your insights. I'm still new enough to the blog that I don't know all your thoughts about this, so I apologize if I'm unknowingly echoing something you've said before.

    (Also, I notice that you're using the NIV. Please don't, especially with Paul:

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