That, in and of itself, is important. It is often overlooked that the Reformation occurred because of profound theological differences. To be sure, there was the question of corruption in the church, but many Catholics acknowledged that as well. Corruption can be dealt with internally; irreconcilable theological differences lead to schism.
The Reformation did not occur because of indulgences, and it did not occur (as sometimes taught in Catholic schools) because Luther was making a land grab.
As for grace and merit, they are essentially opposites. The definition of grace is unmerited favor. God gives us grace not because we earned it (then it wouldn’t be grace) but because Christ died for our sins. In some mysterious way Christ’s death was necessary in order for God to show favor, in the form of salvation, upon whomever He chooses. It is as if Christ’s merit for living a sinless life and dying sacrificially (with the burden of our sins) is credited in the form of grace to unworthy sinners.
Grace can be thought of by the acrostic GRACE: God’s Reward At Christ’s Expense.
Merit, on the other hand, is something you earn.
Merit-less SalvationEvangelicals agree with the reformers that we do nothing to merit salvation. The only thing we contribute is our sin. Salvation is a gift of grace.
Protestants may differ on whether the gift can be rejected, and whether or not the recipient plays any active role in accepting the gift, but all will agree that the offer was made without regard to merit.
Catholicism and MeritIn what I am writing here I am trying to be honest about Catholicism. (I was once a Catholic). I welcome correction.
Catholics speak of three types of merit, each of which plays a role in salvation:
- Condign Merit. This is merit attributed to our works for which God is obligated to give reward. This is like paying a laborer his due wages.
- Congruous Merit. This is merit that is “reasonable”, but not obligated. In secular terms, it is something like a waitress’ tip. It is attained through works and penance.
- Supererogatory Merit. This is the stuff of saints. It is their “excess” merit and it is deposited in a treasury of supererogatory merits. It can then be drawn upon to free people from purgatory. Attaining supererogatory merit is also possible for a priest living a life of celibacy in devotion to Christ. A layman can accrue supererogatory merit through regular church attendance and constant attention to the sacraments. Mary is thought to have contributed enormous excess merit into the treasury.
Protestants reject the efficacy of all three types of human merit. For a Protestant, everything is by grace, which is to say by Christ's merit. The offer of salvation is by grace. The faith with which we believe is by grace. Good works are set aside for us by grace. It is all grace.
Let’s look at some scripture.
"So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, 'We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.'" (Luke 17:10, NASB)We do not earn merit for doing our duty, which is to be obedient to the things God has commanded. (Lesson for parents: don’t pay your children to do their chores.)
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph. 2:8-9, NASB)I have no meaningful words to add to the plain reading of these two beautiful and critical verses.
For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? (Rom. 8:29:31), NASB)For Protestants, this passage in Romans may be the pièce de résistance (or, more appropriately, the coup de grâce). This is the complete path from the foundations of time until glorification and it is all about what God did: He foreknew. He predestined. He called. He justified. He glorified. There is nothing in here about the contribution of man.
How serious is this?It is serious enough the Rome believed that Protestants, with their view of salvation, are preaching a different gospel. This is a very serious accusation, as the Apostle Paul wrote:
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! (Gal. 1:8, NASB)
To its credit, Rome then did what the church should do in that situation; it placed its anathema on the reformers (at the Council of Trent 1545-1563). The curse on those who follow the Gospel as taught by the reformers has never been lifted by Rome.
As I said, the Reformation was about serious theological differences, not about politics.