It seems the greatest joy of Christianity is that Someone always loves us no matter how sinful we are, and will give us without fail a “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over” (Lk. 6:38) not because of our “own doing,” but “by grace” (Eph. 2:8). Yet, on the other hand, we know that if we claim to have a relationship with this Great Lover and receive the superabundance of His life, we must “keep the commandments (Mt. 19:17) and work towards Him “with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).
This tension between our total inability to deserve anything of God, on one hand, and our need to merit our salvation, on the other, has been an age-old theological struggle in the Church. The question essentially boils down to this: Can we ever merit anything from God? Like most good questions, it seems that the two worst answers are “yes” and “no.” If you say “yes,” then you fall into the heresy of Pelagianism, which presumptuously argues we can work our own way to Heaven without God’s grace—in other words, we become so good that God is “compelled” to let us into Heaven. If you answer “no,” however, then you fall into the heresy of Calvinism, that argues that we are so depraved that we have no say in our salvation, and it is only God’s choice to damn or save us.
Realizing this same tension and the disastrous outcomes of accepting either extreme in the dilemma, St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae gives us a brilliant answer in the prima secundae, Question 114, that serves as a middle way. As he often does—possibly better than any other philosopher before or after him—he finds a kernel of truth in both sides of the argument and points out a distinction that makes the question much clearer.
First, St. Thomas shows us the truth in the idea that man cannot, in fact, merit anything from God by his own power. This is true for two reasons. The most obvious is that of sin. Since “sin is an offense against God,” says Thomas, it “excludes us from eternal life”; in short, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Thomas goes further, however, to say that even if man had never fallen in the Garden had never sinned, he still could not merit grace from God, because grace is above and superior to his very nature. Thomas writes that since it is not in our nature, our natural dignity, to receive the things of God, we can have no right to His grace by our own merit. Similar to how a monkey can never of its own accord fly to outer space, but would need a higher being to build it a rocket ship, we can never merit grace from God without Him giving us some grace in the first place to merit it.
After showing the truth in this position, Thomas goes on to show the truth in Pelagius’ error. Although we can indeed merit nothing from God on our own accord, we can come to do so, as shown above, if God gives us grace. Once God offers us “first grace”—the preliminary act of grace that brings us to Christ through faith and that we cannot merit on our own—and accept it, we became “adopted sons of God” (Eph. 1:5). As sons, the work we do is no longer solely our own but, as St. Thomas puts it, “proceeds from the grace of the Holy Ghost moving us to life everlasting.” It is only then that, inasmuch as our actions are dependent on the dignity of God’s grace, we can earn what is called “condign”—or worthy—merit.
Lastly, Thomas ends his discussion with a practical point: we are made worthy of condign merit chiefly through the measure of our love through the grace of God. He writes that “what we do out of love we do most willingly,” and since merit comes from what we do willingly, “merit is chiefly attributed to charity.” Hence, Thomas ends on the bright note that it is ultimately through love that we do anything of value, and it is through love that we became truly free.
Featured image courtesy of Lawrence, OP, via Flickr.