In this post, I am summarizing the findings of Wes White in another article of his entitled “Does the Concept of Merit Merit Abandonment?” FV proponents loudly proclaim that the idea of merit should be abandoned. For instance, Norman Shepherd says that the problem of evangelical Protestantism is that they have not always rejected the concept of merit itself, and thus are unable to challenge Romanist concepts of salvation at its very roots (see Call of Grace, pp. 61-62). Is this the case? Absolutely not. Everyone was talking about merit in the days of the Reformation, even about Adam. Merit was neither distinctive to Roman Catholicism, nor repugnant to Reformation theology.
There are three kinds of merit that everyone was talking about: condign merit means something that intrinsically deserves a reward that is in proportion to that something; congruent merit means something that deserves a reward, but is rewarded to a greater degree than it deserves; covenant merit, or merit by pact, is something that has no intrinsic value, but is rewarded because of a promise.
Here is the ultimate problem with Shepherd’s position on merit: if we chuck merit entirely, then sin does not merit hell. The view of the law given in the WS is that obedience and disobedience are the flip sides of the law (see LC 99). A command has the corresponding opposite negative prohibition, and, furthermore, the threat has the corresponding opposite positive promise. This is absolutely vital to understanding the Covenant of Works. Now, Wes’s position is that sin condignly merits hell. Sin is intrinsically meritorious of hell. I agree with this. However, I also think that sin merits hell by pact in addition to condignly meriting hell, since it was part of the covenant that God made with Adam. The question, then, is this: how can a negative prohibition in Genesis 2 coupled with a threat of punishment for disobedience amount to a positive promise, as well as a positive command? Or, to put the question in Shepherd’s own terms, “How does a command not to do something demonstrate that by a lifetime of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience Adam will earn or merit the right to eternal life?” (see response 3, pg. 1). This is answered for us in LC 99: how do we interpret the moral law? The moral law was certainly given to Adam (see WCF 19.1-3). Therefore, the way in which the WS interpret the Ten Commandments applies also to the moral law as given to Adam. The nature of Adam’s sin was fundamentally idolatrous. That was the nature of the temptation, explicit in Genesis 3:5. Therefore, the nature of the corresponding, opposite obedience, would have been of a God-honoring pactum merit nature. As the WCF itself says, Adam’s could never have merited anything condignly. Adam owed obedience to God as his liege-Lord. However, God had promised (by the law of interpretation given in LC 99) eternal life based on the pactum merit of Adam’s perfect and personal obedience. This is why the WS interpret the CoW the way they do. It is because they see fundamental continuity between the stipulations of the CoW as given to Adam, and the Ten Commandments as given to Israel. That continuity justifies the interpretation of the Ten Commandments being valid also for the CoW. So, contrary to Norman Shepherd, the Reformers have **never** said that Adam’s merit to eternal life would be a matter of “simple justice” (Call of Grace, pg. 26). This is simply irresponsible historiography. It is not a matter of condign merit, but of pactum merit. I see that Norman Shepherd makes the same historiographical errors in his response to the OPC study committee report (see his inexplicable citing of Thornwell as indicative of a representative treatment of the CoW in response 3, pg. 2: I have never seen Thornwell’s ideas anywhere else). I have not read Horton’s work (which Norman Shepherd blasts for using ANE background as helpful in understanding the CoW). However, I would be willing to bet that Horton has considerably more exegesis than Shepherd is willing to allow. There seemed to be very little in the way of contextual quotation of Horton.
One final issue needs to be addressed, and it is the perennial issue of whether such a reading as the above reads into the text something that isn’t there. Shepherd raises this issue ad nauseum in his response to the OPC report (section 3). The issue here is whether or not later texts of Scripture will be allowed into the exegetical discussion. I believe that every “Do this and live” passage has a bearing on the question, since that phrase captures the essence of the pactum merit Covenant of Works. He makes the claim that the Covenant of Works is a later Reformed development (section 3, pg. 3), and that it is not present in the HC or the BC. This is the basis on which he says that the OPC should dump the WS, and hold to the BC and the HC. So much for theological development. Even if Shepherd is right in this claim, the watchword of the FV has been onward and upward progress in theology. If the CoW is a progression in Reformed thought, then why reject it? It certainly has exegetical basis, both in Genesis 2 (as I have pointed out above) and in the “Do this and live” passages. However, I do not agree with Shepherd’s claim that this is a later development. What he is doing is making the word/concept fallacy. “The term ‘covenant of works’ is not present, therefore, the idea is not present.” As Richard Muller points out, the first Reformed theologian to use the term was probably Dudley Fenner, who used the term foedus operum in his Sacra Theologia of 1585 (see MAJT ‘2006, pg. 21). However, as Wes White has proved rather conclusively, John Calvin, in his exegesis of the “Do this and live” passages, exposits the substance of the CoW.
On Leviticus 18:5. It is a remarkable [verse], and contains general instruction, from whence Paul derives his definition of the righteousness of the Law (Rom. 10:5) it seems to me to come in very appropriately here, inasmuch as it sanctions and confirms the Law by the promise of reward. The hope of eternal life is, therefore, given to all who keep the Law; for those who expound the passage as referring to this earthly and transitory life are mistaken… But Scripture does not therefore deny that men are justified by works, because the Law itself is imperfect, or does not give instructions for perfect righteousness; but because the promise is made of none effect by our corruption and sin…The law requires works for the attainment of salvation, whilst faith directs us to Christ, that we may be delivered from the curse of the law. Foolishly, then, do some reject as an absurdity the statement, that if a man fulfils the Law he attains to righteousness; for the defect does not arise from the doctrine of the Law, but from the infirmity of men, as is plain from another testimony given by Paul (Romans 8:3). We must observe, however, that salvation is not to be expected from the law unless its precepts be in every respect complied with; for life is not promised to one who shall have done this thing, or that thing, but, by the plural word, full obedience is required of us. The pratings of the Popish theologians about partial righteousness are frivolous and silly, since God embraces at once all the commandments; and who is there that can boast of having thoroughly fulfilled them? See Calvin’s commentaries, volume 3.1, pp. 204-5.
On Ezekiel 20:11. [Ezekiel] took this testimony from Moses, and we shall see immediately that he cites it in a different sense. Moses there pronounces that th life of man rests on the observance of the law; that is,- life was surely to be expected through satisfying the law. Some think this absurd, and so restrict what is said to the present life, taking “he shall live in them” politically or civilly: but this is a cold and trifling comment…Since, then, it pleased God to descend so far as to promise life to men if they kept his law, they ought to accept this offer as springing from his liberality. there is no absurdity, then, if men do live, that is, if they deserve eternal life according to agreement. See Calvin’s Commentaries, volume 12.1, pp. 297-298.
On Matthew 19:17. This passage was erroneously interpreted by some of the ancients, whom the Papists have followed, as if Christ taught that, by keeping the law, we may merit eternal life. [N.B. Calvin is referring to sinful humanity (“we”) as the Papists view humanity, not to the hypothetical reality of eternal life by law-keeping, as will become clear later in the quotation: emphasis original] On the contrary, Christ did not take into consideration what men can do, but replied to the question, ‘What is the righteousness of works?’ or, ‘What does the Law require?’ And certainly we ought to believe that God comprehended in his law the way of living holily and righteously, in which righteousness is included; for not without reason did Moses make this statement, ‘He that doeth these things shall live in them,’ and again, ‘I call heaven and earth to witness that I have this day showed you life.’ We have no right, therefore, to deny that the keeping of the law is righteousness, by which any man who kept the law perfectly-if there were such a man- would obtain life for himself…I acknowledge, therefore, that, as God has promised the reward of eternal life to those who keep his law, we ought to hold by this way, if the weakness of our flesh did not prevent; but Scripture teaches us, that it is through our own fault that it becomes necessary for us to receive as a gift what we cannot obtain by works. See Calvin’s Commentaries, volume 16.2, pp. 394-395. I will also refer folk to Calvin’s commentaries on Romans 10:5 (volume 19.2, pp. 385ff) and Galatians 3:12 (volume 21.1, pp. 90-91).