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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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MERIT.—The idea of merit in general is one which attaches to human conduct on the presupposition of the existence, in the first place, of a moral law; in the second place, of free-will in man, enabling him to obey it; and, in the third place, of some system of rewards and punishments, by which the worth of obedience to the Law is recognized, and equally the unworth of disobedience is demonstrated. That conduct is meritorious, or possesses merit, which corresponds with the moral law, and at the same time is voluntary; and, as meritorious, it claims honour or reward. This is the general ethical conception of merit (cf. Martineau, Types of Ethical Theory3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , ii. 80 ff.). The theological use, however, of the conception, and still more of the term (‘merit,’ meritum), involves further specifications, which follow, on the one hand, from the connexion of the idea with other theological ideas, e.g. those of God, of His grace, and so on; and, on the other hand, from the different analogies under which, from time to time, the relation of God to men has been conceived. Here we have two special cases of the use of the conception to consider: (1) its use in the Gospels; (2) the use not only of the idea, but also of the theological term ‘merit’ in reference to the work of Christ.

1. The idea of merit in the Gospels.—We note, first, that the use of the conception is frequent in the Gospels in connexion with a general view of God as the Judge and Rewarder of good and evil deeds. This conception of God was in fact that dominant at the time of the ministry of our Lord, God’s relation to men being commonly viewed under legal analogies. Compare the statement of Schultz (op. cit. infr.):—

‘When Christianity entered into the world and found its first expression in the dominant Jewish circles, as well as among the spokesmen of the idealistic Hellenic popular culture, the thought of a Divine repayment deciding according to legal standards, and therefore of a merit or demerit of men according to which their fate was to be settled, was a self-evident axiom.… With faith in God as the representative of the moral order of the world, there appeared to be self-evidently given the faith that He rewards and punishes according to the rule of human law.’

This statement of Schultz may be supplemented, with regard, in particular, to the doctrine of the Pharisees, which forms at once the background and the contrast of the teaching of Jesus, by the accounts of H. J. Holtzmann, NT Theol. i. p. 62 ff., and of Weber, Jud. Theol.2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] p. 277 ff. In the Pharisaic theology the legal conception of God takes the sharpest possible form. The Law is thought of as the sum of so many precepts, the performance of each one of which establishes a separate and definite merit or claim to reward (Weber, p. 380 ff.).

‘Just like a heavenly book-keeper, God reckons and calculates according to a standard quantitative as well as qualitative—here the sum of performances of the law and meritorious works, there the sum of transgressions and misdeeds’ (Holtzmann, p. 63).

The idea of merit, however, does not end with the performance of the Law: it also attaches to ‘good works,’ i.e. voluntary acts beyond the strict requirement of the Law, but which are taken account of in the same way before God’s judgment seat, and avail to make up the shortcomings of a man’s account. The principal of these good works are almsgiving and works of charity (Weber, p. 284). Finally, the idea of merit is brought specially into connexion with the question of ultimate salvation.

‘The judgment on men before the heavenly court of justice takes place with reference to the question whether the man shall live or die—whether he shall be found worthy of the future Kingdom of God or not’ (Weber, p. 278).

The teaching of Jesus now proceeds in agreement with the theology of the Pharisees, in so far as He not only continually speaks of the rewarding of our works by God, but also represents the Kingdom of God itself under the point of view of a reward, which is awarded to the performance of ‘righteousness.’ We have the general idea of work and reward in Matthew 6:1-4; Matthew 6:6; Matthew 6:16; Matthew 6:18; Matthew 10:41-42; Matthew 20:1-7; Matthew 24:45-51; Matthew 25:14-28, Mark 9:41, Luke 6:35; Luke 10:7, John 4:36. For the Kingdom of God (life, or eternal life) as reward, cf. Matthew 6:20; Matthew 19:17; Matthew 25:31-46, Mark 10:29-30.

The limitations set to the idea of merit in the teaching of Jesus, as compared with its use in the theology of the Pharisees, are, however, very striking. (a) First of all, we have to notice the change involved by the difference in the conception of God. While with the Pharisees the idea of God as Lawgiver and Judge is dominant, with Jesus this idea is subordinated to the conception of God as Father. The idea of reward itself, in fact, is connected with that of God’s Fatherhood (Matthew 6:1; Matthew 6:4; Matthew 6:6; Matthew 6:18). What this implied is thus stated by Schultz:—

‘Since Jesus has taught His disciples to see the true understanding of their relation to God in the figure of child and father, then the thought of merit in the sense of the law is in general completely irreconcilable with the figure’ (p. 15).

Only an ethical, not a legal, conception of merit is therefore possible along the lines of the teaching of Jesus.

(b) Jesus criticised the Pharisaic doctrine of reward according to strict legal merit, by teaching that the reward which God gives is not according to debt, but according to grace. We have here to remember that when Jesus illustrates, as He frequently does, the relation of God to men by that of a master and his household servants (cf. Matthew 24:45-51; Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 17:9), this excludes the idea of legal merit.

‘A servant in the sense of antiquity cannot win merit. He is δοῦλος ἀχρεῖος, even when he has done all he should (Luke 17:9). The Lord can reward him, but that remains at bottom an act of good-pleasure’ (Schultz, p. 15).

The point is made still clearer by the one parable where Jesus introduces a relation in which merit and reward are possible, speaking not of household servants, but of hired labourers (Matthew 20:1-16). Here

‘He emphasizes in intentional paradox that the lord in his goodness will not bind himself to this rule—that he indeed redeems his promise, but reserves to himself the right to transcend the measure of the law in free sovereignty’ (ib.).

Cf., on the same point, Holtzmann (i. p. 196):—

‘This remarkable parable annuls the idea of reward in applying it, completely destroys the relation of merit and right, of performance and reward in general.’

We note, finally, to the same effect, the gracious abundance of the reward in Mark 10:30, Matthew 24:46-47; Matthew 25:21-23, Luke 6:38.

(c) Another criticism which Jesus passes on the legal idea of merit is that it is too external. God, the Father, looks at the heart. The better righteousness, which admits to the Kingdom, is an inward righteousness (cf. Matthew 5:20 to Matthew 6:18). But this affects the whole conception of merit and reward.

‘The reward belongs to the personality which reveals itself in the work, not to the performance as such.… Thus, what appears as reward is at bottom the recognition of the worth of the personality.… It is the conduct of life, the πρᾶξις, which appears in the single acts, and is rewarded (Matthew 16:27) … as it is the love shown to the brothers of Christ which is recognized in the judgment (Matthew 25:34 ff.)’ (Schultz, p. 14).

To sum up, then, we do not in the teaching of Jesus get a completely unified doctrine of merit, but we get clear indications of the lines which such a doctrine must follow. It must be ethical rather than legal; must connect itself with the conception of God’s Fatherhood, and with the idea of His free grace, rather than with that of His strict retribution according to law; and must have regard not to external actions only, but to the inward motive. The conditions are fulfilled if we recognize human merit as the worth to the Heavenly Father of the conduct of His sons when judged by the inward motive of filial obedience, and its reward as the recognition of this worth by His Fatherly love, which gives to His children who seek His Kingdom both this chief good and all things else that they need (Luke 6:31-32). As regards the individual actions of God’s children, the idea of merit is not to be connected with them apart from the general context of filial conduct in which they stand; nor is the idea of reward to be connected with particular Divine gifts apart from the gift of the Kingdom. Only on the background of the general conception of the reward of filial conduct by the gift of the Kingdom can particular gifts appear as the reward of particular actions.

2. The merit of Christ.—The definite theological doctrine, in which the term ‘merit’ is employed as a terminus technicus of the subject, lies beyond the NT. But it is anticipated in the latter, in so far as we there have a doctrine of Christ’s work as man, in which ethical standards are applied to the subject. (a) In this doctrine it is above all upon His death that attention is concentrated, as the point in which the character of His saving work specially appears. We have first the idea of Christ’s death as an act of obedience to God (Romans 5:19, Philippians 2:8, Hebrews 10:5-10). Further approximation to the idea of a merit of Christ is contained in the references to the worth of His death in procuring the salvation of men. It is a ransom (Mark 10:45), a price (1 Corinthians 6:20). In the idea of sacrifice once more we have both the idea of the worth to God of Christ’s death as self-surrender, and of its worth for men in procuring salvation (Ephesians 5:2, Hebrews 10:5-10). [The important series of passages further defining the sacrifice of Christ as an expiatory sacrifice is not brought in here; since these passages, so far as they contain this additional idea, belong properly to the Scripture proof of the doctrine of Christ’s work, not as directly meriting salvation, but as making satisfaction for sin, and so making salvation possible. In virtue of the general idea of sacrifice contained in them, apart from the specification of it as expiatory, they may, however, be added to the proof of the doctrine of merit]. We have, further, references in the NT to the recognition of Christ’s death by God. On account of it the Father loves Him (John 10:17); because of His obedience in it God exalts Him to universal lordship (Philippians 2:9-11). [Compare the Divine recognition of the worth of the work of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:10-12]. (b) The conception of the work of Christ is not, however, confined to His death. His life is a ministry to men (Mark 10:45). His work (John 17:4) includes the manifestation of the Divine name to the disciples (John 17:6), the giving to them of the words received from the Father (John 17:8), the keeping of them from the evil in the world (John 17:12), as well as His final sacrifice (John 17:19). Moreover, it is not only the death of Christ, but His work throughout His life, that God recognizes in glorifying in turn the Son who has glorified Him (John 17:1-4). And, finally, both Mark 10:45 and John 17 imply that the work of Christ in His life and death is all of a piece; since in both passages, but especially in John 17, there is no break in the way in which the culminating work of the death is added on to the work of the life.

Summing up our results, we have in the NT the basis of a doctrine of Christ’s merit as the worth to God (and men) of His human work carried on throughout His life, and culminating in His death. This worth of Christ’s work is estimated by God along the lines of Christ’s obedience to His will (the work of Christ being that which the Father has given Him to do (John 4:24; John 17:4). It is recognized by God in the special love with which He regards Christ in the accomplishment of His work, and outwardly by His exaltation or glorification. It is to be noted, however, that while the position of lordship is viewed as the reward of the work of Christ, the salvation of men is not viewed in the NT as its direct reward, but rather as its fruit or effect (John 12:24). Christ saves, according to NT conceptions, by His earthly work, but not by means of it as a quantum which can be detached from His Personality, and rewarded by the salvation of men [as in the conception of the ecclesiastical doctrine of Christ’s merit, presently to be discussed]. Instead of this, we have the conception that through His work He becomes a saving Personality, or, as Rothe puts it, that through it He ‘qualifies Himself to become a Redeemer’ (Theol. Ethik,2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] iii. p. 104). Our salvation follows from His work; since the Christ, who lived to minister to men, to make known to them the words which the Father had given Him, and to keep them from the evil, and persevered in His work to the death in perfect obedience to the will of His Father, thus offering up His life as a sacrifice to God, by this very work and the Personality achieved through it, exercises a saving authority and influence over men (John 12:32; cf. the similar idea in Isaiah 53:11, where the righteous Servant justifies many through his knowledge, and thus sees of the travail of his soul and is satisfied). But the open recognition of Christ’s work by God in the exaltation of Christ, which begins with the Resurrection, also contributes to His saving power over men (cf. Romans 4:25 ‘raised for our justification’); inasmuch as a human personality influences us not only by its inner worth, but also through the outward manifestation and revelation of that worth. Thus in the NT the Saviourhood of Christ is connected specially with His Lordship (Acts 5:31, 2 Peter 1:11). The name which is above every name (Philippians 2:11) is the name of salvation (Acts 5:12). Cf. also the use of the name Christ, which implies both Saviourhood and Lordship, in special reference to the state of exaltation (Acts 2:36; St. Paul also always thinks of the risen Lord as the Saviour). It is at this point that the way in which human salvation can be regarded as the ‘reward’ of the work of Christ becomes clearest, inasmuch as the exaltation which is His direct reward puts Him in the position to reap the full fruit of His travail in the salvation of souls.

Two more points are necessary to complete our outline of the suggestions of the NT towards a doctrine of Christ’s merit. In the first place, there is required (c) a closer definition of Christ’s saving power. What is the work by which He saves? It is, above all, the revelation of the holy love of God in Christ’s life and death, which moves men at once to faith in God as revealed in Him, and to repentance (μετάνοια, change of mind from love of sin to love of God), and thus brings them into that communion with the Father which is the essential ground of all the blessings of salvation. Christ’s love towards men and His holiness, in the absolute unity of His Person, are a manifestation of the love and the holiness of God, as existing in a similar absolute personal unity; and the trust and repentance which Christ inspires are directed through Him to God. For proof of these statements, the following passages, amongst others, may be referred to. According to John 1:14-18 the grace and truth of Christ declare the invisible God. In Romans 5:15 the grace of Christ is equivalent to the grace of God. In Romans 8:35-39 the love of Christ reveals the love of God. Further, in John 17:11; John 17:25 the Father whom Christ reveals is the holy, the righteous Father. Jesus awakes not only trust in the love of God (Romans 5:8; Romans 8:35-39), but also repentance towards God (Acts 5:31; cf. the Pauline idea of baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection as involving a death to sin and new life unto God, Romans 6:1-11). Finally, to know God as revealed in Christ is eternal life, or the sum of all blessings (John 17:3).

(d) In the second place, the above definition of the work of Christ as the revelation of the holy love of God, throws further light upon the ‘reward’ of Christ. We saw that while this meant primarily the recognition of Christ’s work by God in His exaltation, it involved indirectly the fruit or effect of the work of Christ, as realized through this. But now it appears that the whole conception of the reward of Christ by God is subordinate to the idea of the immanence of God in His work. The work of Christ is not only the work which God has given Him to do (John 4:34; John 17:4), but God works through Him; so that the value to God of the work of Christ consists ultimately in His voluntary self-surrender to be the personal instrument in the world of the saving revelation of God, and the recognition of this work by God in the exaltation of Christ, which yields Him the fruit of His work in the salvation of men, is, at the same time, included in the execution of God’s own purpose of salvation. Thus the ethical doctrine of the work of Christ culminates ultimately in the wholly religious view of it (2 Corinthians 3:1-9; cf. the subordination of the work of Christ to the grace of God in Romans 3:24-28).

Such is the outline of a doctrine of Christ’s merit, as sketched in the NT. The agreement of it with the ethical lines of Christ’s own general teaching on merit, as previously stated, is apparent. There is the same stress on the inner motive of obedience, the same domination of the whole subject by the idea of God’s Fatherhood; while the exaltation of Christ is the analogue of the gift to His people of the Kingdom, in which they share His Lordship (Luke 22:29, 2 Timothy 2:12).

Very different is the ecclesiastical doctrine of Christ’s merit, which, beginning with Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, extends throughout both the Catholic and the Protestant scholasticism. Here an idea of merit is applied to the work of Christ, which is essentially the same as that of the Pharisaic theology, rejected by Jesus. This idea exists as a general conception illustrating the relation of man to God from the time of Tertullian onwards, who introduced from the vocabulary of Roman law the term meritum, and its cognates mereri, promereri, demereri, to define it (cf. Harnack, Dogmengeschichte3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , iii. p. 16, n. [Note: note.] 1). As employed by Anselm to elucidate the work of Christ, it includes the following points. (1) The work of Christ is regarded as a voluntary work or performance, lying outside of the sphere of Christ’s proper obligation to God. Anselm thinks of Christ as bound as man to obedience to God in His life, but as sinless man, free from obligation to die: hence His voluntary death is a work, which He can and does offer to God to procure the salvation of men. (2) The value of this work to God is estimated, not qualitatively by its motive, but quantitatively by the dignity of the Person who performs it. (3) The reward of Christ’s work follows from God’s justice, and the conception of this is equally external with that of the work itself, the reward being transferable from Christ to His people just like a sum of money. ‘Whom could He more justly make the heirs of His debt (i.e. the reward which God owes Him), which He does not Himself need, than His relatives and brethren?’ (Cur Deus Homo, lib. ii. cap. 9).

The Catholic schoolmen after Anselm, and the Protestant schoolmen after them, continue the Anselmic doctrine of merit, not, however, without many changes. Of these the most important are as follows. Peter Lombard, following Philippians 2:9-11, adds that Christ merited not only salvation for us, but exaltation and glory for Himself (Sent. lib. iii. dist. 18). Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus no longer deduce the reward of Christ’s merit from God’s justice, as does Anselm, but either from a relative justice or equity, such as that implied in Roman law by the relation of father and son, or lord and slave (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, ii. i. 104. 1), or from God’s mere good pleasure (Scotus in Sent. lib. iii. dist. 20, qu. 1). By the Protestant schoolmen the material content of Christ’s merit is enlarged by the addition of the general obedience of Christ’s life, as voluntary, to the special voluntary obedience of His death (which latter they view not as a gift to God, but as an endurance of the penalties of sin). None of these changes, however, essentially alters the Anselmic conception of merit. Two points in particular stand fast throughout, viz. the idea of Christ’s work as something voluntary and unowed, and the entirely external conception of it as a quantum, whose value can be assessed and rewarded by another quantum of corresponding value. Only in the idea, first fully developed, after Bernard and Lombard, by Aquinas, and continued especially in the Reformed theology, that the ‘transfer’ of Christ’s merit to His people is mediated through His mystic unity as Head with them as His members, is the hard, juristic outline of the Anselmic doctrine transcended (cf. Summa Theol. iii. 46. 1). By the end of the Protestant scholasticism, however, the disparateness of the traditional idea of merit from anything in the NT had become clear to the theologians within Protestantism of a critical tendency. The Arminian Limborch says of this idea, along with that of satisfaction: ‘Since they do not stand in Scripture, but have been invented by men, no one is bound to the meaning of them any further than it can be construed from the phrases of Scripture, to elucidate the sense of which they have been applied’ (Theologia Christiana, lib. iii. cap. 21. 1). In the period of theological reconstruction since Schleiermacher, the general tendency of theologians, so far as they have not simply repeated older ideas, or dissolved theology into philosophy, has been either to reject the term ‘merit’ altogether, as being too much associated with the scholastic conception of it, or, if it has been retained, to reinterpret it along more Scriptural lines. Ritschl, above all, has succeeded in transforming into firm dogmatic conceptions the outlines of the NT doctrine, as above stated. See his exhaustive treatment of the whole subject in Justification and Reconciliation, vol. iii. [English translation p. 434 ff.].

Literature.—Schultz, ‘Der sittliche Begriff des Verdienstes und seine Anwendung auf das Verständniss des Werkes Christi2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] in SK [Note: K Studien und Kritiken.] , 1894, p. 9; Ritschl, Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , 3 vols. 1889 [English translation (Justification and Reconciliation) of 1st vol. from 1st ed. 1872, of 3rd vol. from 3rd ed. 1902]; H. J. Holtzmann, NT Theol. 1897; Wendt, Lehre Jesu2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , 1901 [English translation from 1st ed. 1893]; Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo in Migne’s Patr. Lat. tom. 158, also in separate ed. (Nutt), 1894.

Robert S. Franks.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Merit'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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