Merit in the Reformed Fathers

The category of merit is not a Roman Catholic invention. It hinges on the Covenant of works, which is clearly affirmed in all traditional Reformed documents. The language of merit is clear in the following places: Heidelberg Catechism 60, which is about as clear as it gets: “How are you right with God? A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments and of never having kept any of them, and even though I am still inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without my deserving it at all, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me.” Then question 61 ices it down to Christ’srighteousness alone that justifies the sinner. In the Larger Catechism, question 174, we find an explicit reference to “trusting in his merits,” plainly referring to Christ’s merits.

In Calvin’s Inst. 2.17.1, Calvins says this, “There are certain…men who-even though they confess that we receive salvation through Christ-cannot bear to hear the word “merit,” for they think that it obscures God’s grace. Hence, they would have Christ as a mere instrument or minister.” In 2.17.3, he says, “By his obedience,however, Christ truly acquired and merited grace for us with his Father…then he acquired salvation for us by his righteousness,which is tantamount to deserving it.”

Turretin says in volume 1, pg. 352 “The object of Christ’s merit is the elect.” Volume 2, pp. 445-446 are also most instructive, where he affirms that Christ’s active and passive obedience are imputed to the believer.

Berkhof says this (pg. 523 of 1st. ed): “Positively, that the ground of jsutification can be found only in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to the sinner in justification.,,the passive obedience…and in His active obedience, by which he merited all the gifts of grace.”

Hodge, vol 3, pg. 142: “By the righteousness of Christ is meant all he became, did, and suffered to satisfy the demands of divine justive, and merit for his people the forgiveness of sin and the gift of eternal life.”

Dabney, Lectures, pg. 626, “Hence, the merit of His obedience to the precepts, as well as of His atoning suferings, must be imputed to us for justification.”

Buchanan, page 314-315, “It is necessary, therefore, to show that His righteousness,-considered as the entire merit of His whole Mediatorial work,-is not only the meritorious cause, but also the immediate ground, of our justification.”

Manton, volume 1, pg 173: “Christ hath not only satisfied for the punishment, but he hath procured favour for us; wherein he differeth from an ordinary and common surety. Christ does not only free us from bonds, but also hath brought us into grace and favour with the creator, lawgiver, and judge. There is a double notion of Christ’s death; that of a ransom for the delivery of a captive, and as a merit and price which was given for eternal life. The death of Christ did not only dissolve the obligation which lay upon us to suffer the penalty for the breach of the law, and so deliver us from the wrath to come; but it was a price that was given to purchase grace, favour, and heaven for us, which is called, Eph. 1:14, ‘The purchased possession.’ now, why must our surety instate us thus into favour? Because Christ was such a surety as did not only pay the forfeiture, but also the principal; that is, he did not only make satisfaction for the trespass and offence (which is the payment of the forfeiture), but also he established a righteousness answerable to the law (which is the payment of the principal), and of that original debt which God first required of the creature; for there is a debt of duty and service which Christ performeth and establisheth as a righteousness for us.”

Everyone believed in merit in those times. The question revolves around how merit works. The RCC believed that there were supererogatory works merited by the fathers of the church (the saints) that could be applied to the believer. The Reformed believed that only Christ’s work could be imputed to the believer.The fundamental dispute of the Reformation was not about the category of merit at all, but about how the righteousness of Christ is applied to us: was it infused (the RCC) or was it imputed (the Reformed position)?