Do the Westminster Standards Teach Merit?

Certainly not everyone who disagrees with Adamic merit is guilty of all the errors above, but some have fallen into such errors. This should lead us to deal very carefully with these issues and to be on guard when we hear someone denying Adamic merit. This is not an issue to be swept under the carpet but one that should receive careful attention since the way one answers this question can affect the whole system of doctrine.

In order to answer the question of whether the Westminster Standards teach merit, we must know what merit is. So, what is merit? Merit is defined in the dictionary as worth.

As a verb, to merit something is to deserve something.

With that definition in mind, we can now consider whether the Westminster Standards teach merit.

If you search the Westminster Standards, you will find that it does use the word “merits” in reference to Christ. Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 55 says that Christ appears in our nature before the Father in heaven “in the merit of his obedience and sacrifice on earth.” Thus, Christ’s obedience and sacrifice on earth was meritorious, and it is Christ’s will that the merit of His obedience and sacrifice would be “applied to all believers.”

Because our Standards so clearly teach the meritorious nature of Christ’s obedience and sacrifice, the 34th General Assembly stated that the view that “strikes the language of ‘merit’ from our theological vocabulary so that the claim is made that Christ’s merits are not imputed to His people is contrary to the Standards.”

But what about human beings other than Christ? Can they merit? Westminster Confession 16.5 states that believers cannot merit and provides several reasons why they cannot.

But what about a sinless and righteous human being other than Christ? What do the Westminster Standards teach concerning Adam and merit?

Adam’s Merit
At the outset, we must note that we cannot answer this question by saying, “Christ could merit; therefore, Adam could merit.” Christ was the God-man; Adam was a mere man. The worth and value of Christ’s obedience is totally out of proportion to the worth and value of Adam’s obedience.

Second, we can say that there are certainly things that Adam could not merit. He could not merit His creation or an ability to be created in communion with God. He could not do this because he did not exist. All the initial gifts that God gave Adam could not be merited by Adam.

Third, I believe that Adam’s obedience was not, strictly speaking, deserving of the enjoyment of God for all eternity, i.e., eternal life. This is what Westminster Confession seems to be getting at in Chapter 7.1:

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant. Consequently, man’s enjoyment of God is not a matter of inherent right or merit but of condescension on God’s part.

This is the common view of Reformed theologians. Benedict Pictet, a Genevan theologian, represents the common view well:

It is true, that, speaking strictly, there cannot be any covenant between God and man, because there is no proportion between God and man, and between the goodness of the one, and the duty of the other; because also man is bound without any covenant to pay obedience to God, and is not able of himself to contribute anything towards it; nor does God owe anything to his creature, or in any way has need of his creature. But God, under the influence of pure kindness, was pleased by means of a covenant, to invite into communion with himself, and by this bond of love and mutual agreement, more effectually to win over his creature, who was already subject, and owed everything to him.

Thus, in the case of reward for obedience, there is no merit strictly speaking. That is why theologians have spoken of meritum ex pacto, merit in terms of the pact or covenant, rather than condign or congruent merit, in the case of pre-fall Adam.

So, could Adam not merit at all? Did he deserve anything from God? Yes. He could and did merit. God was both a Father and a Judge to Adam. As a Judge, God evaluated Adam’s actions. In order for Adam to be justified (judged or declared righteous), he would have to deserve that declaration. As Pictet notes, “the foundation of his acceptance was the meritorious worthiness of good works…” (Ibid., 313).

This justification before the fall and under the covenant of works is on the basis of one’s own obedience to the law and thus on the basis of one’s own merit. This is codified in the Westminster Standards in the discussion of the law where it says that “true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned…” (WCF 19.1).

In other words, in the covenant of works, man was justified by his own merit, but believers are not justified by their own obedience. They are not declared righteous because they deserve to be. Then, how are they justified? Does God simply declare someone righteous who is not? Not at all. God declares the believer righteous on the basis of “the merit of [Christ’s] obedience and sacrifice on earth” (WLC 55).

So, could Adam merit before the fall? Yes and no. He could merit before the fall in the sense that it was both possible and necessary for him to merit the sentence of justification. On the other hand, there was no proportion between any reward from God and his obedience. This is the very reason that God made a covenant. He could have simply rewarded or created Adam with eternal life, but God wanted to set before Adam life as a reward for the obedience that he already owed to God.

False Resolutions of the Merit Question
The Joint Federal Vision Profession (JFVP), where Federal Visionists such as Jeffrey Meyers and Peter Leithart set forth their Federal Vision views, states, “We deny that continuance in this covenant in the Garden was in any way a payment for work rendered.” This is false. Adam received continuation and fullness of life on the basis of His obedience to God’s law. The JFVP rejects the Westminster Standards view of this matter which states that in the covenant of works, “life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.”

If Adam was going to have life, he would have to work, i.e., perfectly obey God. Payment rendered for work is the correct analogy for this works principle, as Rom. 4:1–5 indicates. The JFVP goes on to say, “the gift or continued possession of that gift was not offered by God to Adam conditioned upon Adam’s moral exertions or achievements.” This is exactly the opposite of the Westminster Standards.

Again, the JFVP says explicitly, “We deny that Adam had to earn or merit righteousness, life, glorification, or anything else.” This is also false. Man would have had to live righteously in order to be righteous, and He would only merit or deserve God’s justifying verdict by his own obedience. It is contrary to God’s character to declare anyone righteous who does not deserve it (i.e., merit such a judgment).

The JFVP then also makes the bizarre move of saying that glorification before the fall “would have been a gift of grace, received by faith alone.” While we can agree that the offer of eternal life on God’s part was gracious, it was absolutely not a gift to be received on the basis of faith alone. Faith alone means God justifies us on the basis of the merits of another. Adam was not justified on that basis, and he would receive the gift or promise life upon fulfilling “personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience.”

This is the very opposite of faith alone and a total confusion of the categories of the law and the Gospel to the detriment of both.

In the case of Missouri Presbytery’s Federal Vision Report, we also see an unhelpful confusion and blurring on this matter. The MOP FV Report states:

On the issue of the “covenant of works,” for example, we believe that those who read the Standards as emphasizing an adamic meritocracy and those who read them as emphasizing the gracious foundation of all God’s covenant dealings with humanity can both claim confessional integrity and historical precedent in the Westminster tradition.

The two views represented here create a false dilemma. I can find no representation of two views like this in the “Westminster tradition.” What I do find is that Reformed theologians have taught that there are gracious aspects to the covenant of works, but they have also emphasized that there is a basic principle of justification by works (or merit) that is fundamental to God’s relationship with man.

By setting up this false dilemma, MOP avoided all the questions in the Federal Vision debate. The question is, in what ways are grace and merit present in the covenant of works. By simply inventing the two views of those who emphasize the gracious foundation of all God’s covenants and the “Adamic meritocracy” view, they have sidestepped the crucial issues in the debate over the bi-covenantal structure of the Standards.

Why Does This Matter?
These are not easy issues, but they are extremely important. These are the foundational issues of the Protestant faith.

First, the only reason that Christ needed to fulfill the law for us is because God relates to His creatures by the law and His holiness and justice demand that He must condemn and punish all breaking of His law and justify all those who keep that law. Merit is not the only aspect of man’s relationship to God, but it is an important and necessary one. Denial of the necessity of merit for justification brings into question the stability of divine law and thus the necessity of Christ’s fulfillment of the law for our justification.

Second, if Adam did not merit his standing before God and justification before God, then there really is no need for Christ’s merit to enable us to stand before God and be justified. In other words, if Adam was justified freely without his own merit, then there is no reason why we cannot be justified freely without Christ’s merit.

Third, if everything is gracious, then there is no contrast between a works/merit principle and a grace/faith principle. But the Bible teaches a works/merit principle.

Consequently, those passages that express the works principle will be seen as teaching the grace/faith principle. In other words, works will become grace. The inflexibility of divine law will be compromised, and so will the graciousness of grace. Everything in the Bible, including works, will be put into one package that is called “grace.” The result will be that grace will become works and grace will no longer be grace.

Certainly not everyone who disagrees with Adamic merit is guilty of all the errors above, but some have fallen into such errors. This should lead us to deal very carefully with these issues and to be on guard when we hear someone denying Adamic merit. This is not an issue to be swept under the carpet but one that should receive careful attention since the way one answers this question can affect the whole system of doctrine.

Wes White is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America who currently serves as Pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Spearfish, South Dakota. He blogs regularly at weswhite.net where this article first appeared; it is used with his permission.

[Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced in this article is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.]