Heidelberg 63: Rewards Merited For Us By Christ And Given Freely To Believers

There are heavenly rewards. They are vastly disproportionate to anything done in us or done by us in the life.

The good news is that Christ has condignly merited both our justification and our salvation. Christ’s benefits were earned for us by his works. They are given freely to us who believe.  It was works for the Christ and it is grace for us Christians.


63. Do our good works merit nothing, even though it is God’s will to reward them in this life and in that which is to come?

The reward comes not of merit, but of grace.

When the medieval church thought about rewards, it thought about merit. They distinguished between two kinds or aspects of merit. That which we most frequently discuss was called “condign merit” (meritum de condigno). Condign merit is intrinsically worthy. The second category was “congruent merit” (meritum de congruo). We might call this merit covenantal insofar as the merit is not inherently worthy of recognition but God has promised or covenanted to recognize it .

For the medieval (and later the Roman) church, he two were intimately bound up with one another. Thomas (Aquinas) in his Summa theologica begins to address the question of “whether a man may merit anything from God” (ST 1a2ae 1.114.1). He defined merit briefly as “the effect of cooperating grace” (see 1a2ae 111) . The first objection will seem familiar to many since it is widely held today: “it would seem that a man can merit nothing from God. For no one, it would seem, merits by giving another his due.” Indeed several of the objections to the very existence of merit sound familiar since they are echoed in contemporary Reformed and evangelical discussions, e.g., objection 3: “…whoever merits anything from another makes his debtor…now since God is no one’s debtor…[h]ence no one can merit anything from God.  Thomas replied (sed contra)

On the contrary, It is written (Jer. 31:16): There is a reward for thy work. Now a reward means something bestowed by reason of merit. Hence it would seem that a man may merit from God.

For Thomas rewards are by their nature merited. He explains (respdeo dicendum), “merit and reward refer to the same, for a reward means something given anyone in return for work or toil, as a price for it. Hence, as it is an act of justice to give a just price for anything received from another, so also it is an act of justice to make a return for work or toil.”

Thomas recognized that there is disproportionality between God and man. “They are infinitely apart” he wrote, so the “there can be no justice of absolute equality between man and God, but only of a certain proportion.” By casting merit this way, Thomas blurred the distinction between condign and congruent merit. The same act can be said to have condign merit, insofar as it is wrought by cooperating grace and congruent merit insofar as our cooperation is in view (1a2ae 114.3. resp. dicen).

Nevertheless, he insisted that men can merit eternal life condignly (ST 1a2ae 114.3). He anticipates what would become a Protestant objection to humans earning condign merit, i.e., “man in grace cannot merit eternal life condignly because ‘the sufferings of this time are not worthy (condignae) to be compared with the glory to come….’ But of all meritorious works, the sufferings of the saints would seem to be most meritorious. Therefore no works of men are meritorious of eternal life condignly.”

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