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Monday, October 24, 2005 

A Reformed Approach to Merit and Good Works

A few thoughts by Reformed extraordinaire Louis Berkhof, Francis Turretin, and John Owen. First, the most recent, and most systematic:

"Scripture clearly teaches that the good works of believers are not meritorious in the proper sense of the word. We should bear in mind, however, that the word ‘merit’ is employed in a twofold sense, the one strict and proper, the other loose. Strictly speaking, a meritorious work is one to which, on account of its intrinsic value and dignity, the reward is justly due from commutative justice. Loosely speaking, however, a work that is deserving of approval and to which a reward is somehow attached (by promise, agreement, or otherwise) is also sometimes called meritorious. Such works are praiseworthy and are rewarded by God. But, however this may be, they are surely not meritorious in the strict sense of the word. They do not, by their own intrinsic moral value, make God a debtor to him who performs them. In strict justice the good works of believers merit nothing."(1)

Turretin uses the same distinctions within the term "merit," and argues that the covenant of works does not involve the kind of merit that creates an independent claim to reward apart from the promise of God. He writes that God’s obligation to "reward" Adam’s obedience with eternal life

"...Was gratuitous, as depending upon a pact of gratuitous promise (by which God was bound not to man, but to himself and to his own goodness, fidelity and truth, Rom. 3:3; 2 Tim. 2:13). Therefore there was no debt (properly so called) from which man could derive a right, but only a debt of fidelity, arising out of the promise by which God demonstrated his infallible and immutable constancy of truth. If the apostle seems to acknowledge this right or debt (Rom. 4:4), it must be understood in no other than a respective sense; not as to the proportion and condignity of the duty rendered to God by man (Rom. 8:18; Lk. 17:10), but to the pact of God and justice (i.e., the fidelity of him making it).

"If therefore upright man in that state had obtained this merit, it must not be understood properly and rigorously. Since man has all things from and owes all to God, he can seek from him nothing as his own by right, nor can God be a debtor to him--not by condignity of work and from its intrinsic value (because whatever that may be, it can bear no proportion to the infinite reward of life), but from the pact and the liberal promise of God (according to which man has the right of demanding the reward to which God had of his own accord bound himself) and in comparison with the covenant of grace (which rests upon the sole merit of Christ, by which he acquired for us the right to life)."(2)

And finally, from the Theologian par excellance, John Owen:

"Such merit as ariseth from an equality and proportion between works and reward, by the rule of commutative justice, would not have been in the works of the first covenant." (3)
__________________________________________________

(1) Berkhof, Louis
Systematic Theology
(Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth, 1998 reprint), p. 542.

(2) Turretin, Francis
Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1994) p. 578.

(3) Owen, John
The Works of John Owen Vol. V "The Doctrine of Justification by Faith" (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1998) p. 277.

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Transplanted from the artic blight of Minnesota to the sunny paradise of SoCal, I am attending school and learning to say "dude." I like to think of myself as equal parts surf rash, Batman, heavy metal, Levinas, poetic license, and reformational. Other than creating blund blogs, I enjoy reading, sporting, and socializing with serious and funny people.
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